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Growing the Global Good
by Philippe Quéau

Buzz phrases like "global village" or "global information society" are very misleading. The concept of "global" is not in itself global. In other words globalization is not "universal", it does not affect everybody in the same way. Exactly like the very concept of "universality" is not in itself "universal". I am referring here to some voices raising concerns about the "occidental" flavour of the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" and supporting the idea that "universality" is in fact a concept rooted in European culture, and that the rights of the person are not compatible with "Asian values" and the Confucean predominance of the Society.

Yet even for those who still believe in universality, it must be clearly underlined that it should not be confused with the sort of globality resulting from globalization.

The "global civilization" concept is a biased view, a partial dream of a very privileged minority ("the global symbol manipulators"), a small subset of this planet's inhabitants. The overwhelming majority does not understand globalization and even less benefit from it, even though they are in fact ensuring its consequences and are either directly or indirectly but very effectively affected by it. The local impact of global causes is harshly felt but not really understood by people unable to conceptualize the real forces at work.

Globalization generates fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of the innumerable and anonymous multiplicity, fear of the "other".

We have no choice but to overcome the fear. How to civilize and humanize what seems to be out of control? How can we create a meaning for a world full of angst and apparently left to itself – with no maps, no pathfinders, no bearings to direct us?

The Global Information Society is a radical testbed. It is a serious challenge to our very capacity to think globally and wisely, with a sense of the common good, the global and meta-national common good, i.e. the "higher common good".

The "blue planet" seen from a satellite appears united but fragile. The Internet planet also appears united, thanks to the "universality" of TCP/IP protocol and World Wide Web HTML language. But the global social consensus is far more fragile than the ozone layer. Who profits most from the Information society? How long will this be sustainable? We know that widening economic gaps and injustices will bring social unrest and maybe social upheavals. What is the role of the information revolution in this respect? A balancing and soothing force, or an accelerating and blinding vortex?

For the techno-scepticists, information and communication technologies (ICTs) should be seen as mere tools. These tools may be put at the service of a political will, provided there is one available. But, they will not bring miraculously ready-made solutions to the global problems that plague the end of this century: economic and financial instabilities, social inequalities, growing unemployment in developed countries, planetary-wide environmental concerns, widening gaps between North and South, potentially leading to political turmoils.

For the techno-optimists, ICTs are not just technologies. They are symptoms of a deeper revolution, useful indicators of a cultural and mental landslide, that will ultimately lead us to a collective reshaping of basic assumptions and values, such as the notion of "work" in an automatized production environment, the concept of "intellectual property" in an economy of ideas, the relevance of "nation state" in a globalized world or the meaning of "general interest" in a free-wheeling market, run by "invisible hands".

Both scepticists and optimists are right in their own way. Yet they miss the real point.

What we need most is a meaning for the existence of humanity, a common tangible objective for humankind, a reason to live and to join our forces together in order to build no less than a new global and humane civilization.

Political will is fundamental, but it is not enough. Certainly we need a political vision, a really global vision able to overcome narrow chauvinistic, nationalistic or culturally biased short-sighted agendas. However, since this planet is shrinking rapidly, above all we need universal ethics, a new moral consciousness. Humanity needs a big leap forward into a new form of consciousness. What is at stake is the birth of the "Noosphere", "l'Esprit du Monde".

The "Noosphere" and the rise of complexity and consciousness.

Teilhard de Chardin coined the word "noosphere" more than 50 years ago. This "mind sphere" is a new radical step in the universal biogenesis process. It is a direct result of the "physical compression" of humanity. Lack of vital space, overpopulation, globalization, tightened and squeezed humanity. Teilhard predicted an "organic impact" of this planetary compression on individuals, ranging from angst to exaltation. This "human totalization" induces an incredible psychic tension, which we are beginning to see the effects of. The emergence of the "noosphere" is the most patent consequence of this tension. It is not a "collective intelligence", but rather a collective mental mutation, a personal transformation, affecting everybody, which makes each of us feel responsible for the collective whole. It is a lap in consciousness. It is the emergence of a global focus for long-term collective action. It is the mental condition for the emergence of a global governance.

Noosphere has already been floating around for a few decades. But the Information revolution, Internet, global speculative bubbles, political deregulation, death of ideologies, suddenly give this concept a big kick forward. We are witnessing a formidable mutation. And it is of utmost importance that we should be fully aware that humanity as a whole is collectively living, right now, this formidable mutation. We need to be individually conscious of what is affecting us collectively.

What is actually happening is not just a new industrial revolution. It is even more fundamental a revolution than the invention of the printing press or the discovery of America. It goes beyond that. It is in fact more comparable to a radical mutation of humanity which transforms it into a new species. Homo sapiens sapiens just gave birth to homo sapiens sapiens sapiens – for want of a better name. Homo sapiens sapiens was able to know and knew that he knew. Homo sapiens sapiens sapiens knows now that he doesn't know (personal level). He also knows that "we" know that we don't know (collective level of consciousness of our ignorance). We know that we are personally but also collectively limited. We know that we have to be humble, and that recognizing this limitation might be in fact the only chance to get us out of trouble. In other words, we know that knowledge is not enough, that knowledge about knowledge is not enough either. We know there is an implacable wall ahead of us. We know we have to find an exit, no matter how. And at the same time, we discover incredible depths and varieties of categories of "otherness". To begin with, in ourselves. We discover that "je est un autre" as Rimbaud said. After our rise to human consciousness, an incredible impulse encourages us to go beyond ourselves, to look for other levels of consciousness, to expulse ourselves from ourselves in search of another land of Canaan, to continue our common cosmic trip.

It is also important to note that the Information society and globalisation are intertwined with abstraction. There is a simultaneous rise of complexity and consciousness. The growing abstraction of the mechanisms of our societies makes it more and more difficult to grasp and fully comprehend our world. Common sense is more and more baffled by global inconsistencies, such as virtual (financial or conceptual) bubbles, or purely rhetorical politics in a time of urgencies. Then, confronted with this abstraction, we have to acquire more personal, social, global consciousness, to give more flesh and spirit to a disincarnated and abstract environment.

At this point, we should stop for a moment and just dream of the future. Dream of another future, or a full range of other futures. We need, each of us, to become poets and prophets. We need yet unseen stars – really global stars -- to take our bearings.

We need to dream our future and our ends just to start solving very practical and down-to-earth questions:

  • What will be the real impact of the Information revolution on the world's global imbalances? Will it aggravate economic, cultural, societal gaps or tend to reduce them? In other words will globalization worsen globalization or humanize it? How fast? How can we react?
  • What is the "common good" in a globalized context? Is "good" what is good for the free market and its "invisible hands"? Is "good" what is good for the leading superpower's technological and economic elites ("the symbol manipulators")? What is in essence the "higher common good" needed to enlighten a global governance?

One Globe, Lots of Tribes and Many Ghettos

It is a well known fact that the pervasiveness of "digital convergence" now affects all aspects of our societies. Furthermore, this phenomenon is furthermore accelerated and facilitated by economic "globalization". Technological and economic globalizations are in fact intertwined and affect all countries, either directly or indirectly.

It is important to underline that there is not one globalization. Different types of globalizations (financial, economic, technological) do flourish coincidentally and accompany the development of the "global" Information Society, which in return facilitates other types of globalization.

Technological globalization relates only to the spatial distribution of ideas, methods, technologies or products. It is not a universalization of "meaning", but a standardization of "means".

Economic globalization takes the lead in a context of "laissez-faire" and "deregulation", while global political issues, such as reducing inequalities, favourising social justice and economic redistribution, are yet to be addressed. A global overclass, disposing of mobile global capitals, makes all the major economic decisions, without much control and countervailing power from relatively weak political institutions, lacking a global clout and a global policy, a global vision adequate to our times.

Cultural, social, political and ethical "globalizations" still lag behind and may even provoke political, ethical, cultural "relativisms".

The nation-state sees its power, legitimacy and scope for action seriously undermined by transnational players and processes: multinational corporations, the flow of finance and information, environmental phenomena, mafias, migrations. Often the regional regulation is Insufficient. And the global regulation is almost non-existent. United Nations are far too weak to handle global imbalances. The sad truth is that no one country, powerful as it may be to day, truly incarnates the global common good. The richest countries incarnate what they deem to be their own interest and no one still has the candour to think that power and money are put to the service of the weak and the poor – especially at the level of the "global village". However the very existence of a super-power and the virulence of a multitude of transnational forces have some very concrete side effects on other smaller states: their weakening to start with.

The weakening of the state undermines its capacity to stem the rise of poverty, exclusion and unemployment and to work for the improvement of education and health systems. The "social contract" in each society is threatened by a blind and borderless globalization with no interest for collective societal projects. Confronted to the power and the influence of the market, the nation-state is weakened and it loses its symbolic meaning, the very values that made it possible and meaningful.

The chances are that in the absence of an effective global political power, able to redistribute the global wealth and to guarantee justice and a sense of the "common good", the global Information Society will not be as advantageous for all countries. We know that in nearly all societies, the needs and preferences of the wealthy and powerful are generally more respected and reflected in official goals and priorities. The Information Society per se will not change this state of affairs. On the contrary, it might just aggravate it. While one can observe a certain widening of the access to ICTs, a closer look reveals that access is in fact reserved for the already better-off.

The World Telecommunication Development Report 1998 published in March 1998 by the International Telecommunication Union said: "There remain vast pockets of humankind without access to basic telecommunications services. It is difficult to believe that this is due to a shortage of funds: the telecommunication industry has its most profitable year ever in 1996. A shortage of supply is also increasingly less of a reason for a lack of access. The greatest danger to improving access today appears to be complacency. There is a tendency to believe that a profitable industry with expanding sources of supply will solve the problem by itself."

In our view, it will not.

The Report suggests that if access to telephone services was sensibly priced and uniformly available, then a further 300 million households could have access to telephones, in addition to the 500 million already connected. But who will decide to implement this policy?

In other words, there will still be winners and losers in the emerging Information Society order. And the gap between them will probably widen. The problem will not be solved miraculously by the immanent virtues of industry. Are there any ways to use ICTs to bridge such a daunting gap between rich and poor? How can ICTs be of any help to the 4 billion people living on less than 2$ a day? This is not just a question of global justice. It is also in the objective interest of the rich. What we would like to stress is that even the winners will ultimately be losers, too, if they let the gap widen. This for two reasons: i) they will suffer from the political and social unrest that the world-wide spectacle of this growing gap will inevitably induce, ii) raising the standards of living of world population will ultimately benefit everybody, except of course those who now actually profit from the exploitation of the global gaps.

What should we do to prevent the discrepancies and the inequalities that will arise from these different types of globalization and from the uneven distribution of their effects among nations? How could we contribute to the elaboration of a concept of "common good", of humankind's "general interest", in the context of the Information Society in its most globalized phase?

Is There a Pilot in the Global Plane? .

As the representative of the people and the guardian of democratic values, the state has the right and responsibility to help integrate cyberspace and society. But who guarantees the integration of cyberspace and global society? Our planet as a whole is not yet "democratically" represented, except maybe by international organizations such as the United Nations, which notoriously lack financial and political means to effectively intervene on crucial global issues.

Cyberspace is not really a no-man's land, any more than fiscal paradises are. If the governments of the world decided to unite in order to clamp down on all possibilities of tax evasion or illegal money trafficking, they could very well impose their will on offshore fiscal and money laundering paradises. Similarly, if sometime in the future, the governments of the world decided to impose a strict reinforcement of a future cyberlaw, this could very well be done. After all, computers and networks are very material objects that are still needed by the immaterial cyberspace, and the police and justice system could very well act on the "real estates" of cyberspace.

Technology standards and privacy issues, for example, are too important to be entrusted to the marketplace alone. Competing software firms have little interest in preserving the open standards that are essential to a fully functioning interactive network. Markets encourage innovation, but they do not necessarily insure the public interest. Governments could decide to encourage and support the developments of public domain software and freewares (such as LINUX, Apache). This goal might appear absolutely vital in a few years, when the importance of equipping the schools of the world with basic computer facilities will become apparent. The software side might very well belong to the world public domain.

Privacy issues are also of strategic importance. The protection of privacy has become one of the most important human rights issues of this turn-of-the-century. Some Big Brothers are watching our every move in order to attain strategic pre-eminence. One recalls the on-going Ukusa pact (binding the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) using the ECHELON network supervised by the US National Security Agency in order to monitor and process more than 3 billion phone calls, faxes, e-mails per day throughout the world. But one should add the Big Sisters of economic, financial and intellectual surveillance. From now on a mere click on a hypertext link, the most casual consultation of a site on the World Wide Web generates " cookies " which feed uncontrollable databases. The technique of data mining (exploitation of data) enables governments and private organizations to carry out mass surveillance and personalized profiling, in most cases without any controls or right of access to examine this data in most cases. From medical care to transport systems, not to mention financial transfers or commercial and banking transactions, enormous quantities of information are accumulated every day, yielding information whose treatment and correlation make it possible to draw up extremely indiscreet portraits of each one of us. Thus, a tight network of surveillance surrounds us in the office and the hospital, from cradle to grave. Commercial interests are willing to keep a low profile and be left free-handed to exploit powerful data-mining resources for marketing research or for information reselling to data brokers and to the "individual reference service" industry. They are not interested by hot questions such as: should personal information copyright belong to the persons concerned or to the data miners processing electronic transactions? What level of anonymity and privacy protection is desirable? It is essentially a philosophical and political issue.

In Europe a Directive governing the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and the free movement of such data came into effect in October 1998, four years after it was adopted in 1994. Its Article 25 states that "the transfer to a third country of personal data which are undergoing processing or are intended for processing after transfer may take place only if (...) the third country in question ensures an adequate level of protection". In the U.S., the chosen path is one of self-regulation. Private companies are expected to demonstrate self-restraint. But why should they comply when the fact of collecting data on consumers is an extremely lucrative business ? In fact, some companies base their very existence on this data, which, in turn, they sell.

Since it remains to be seen if there is any adequate level of protection in the U.S., the question is still pending: who is going to have the last word? The free market or the privacy-conscious global citizen?

The Market vs. General interest. Need for Regulation

The market is not concerned by social redistribution. Important social issues (such as basic education, basic health or maintaining social or even international peace) are left to the "political" sphere. But the market needs peace and also an educated population to function smoothly. Peace and education must be taken care of and also paid for. By whom? International peace for instance does not receive all the necessary credits. Why? Maybe because the "free" market does not think it needs peace, except of course in consumer's sanctuaries... But this is indeed a short-sighted view. One cannot leave the peace of the world to the care of merchants.

Deregulation and globalisation go hand in hand with free market. But we need a re-regulation at a higher level. We need a global governance, i.e. a global government with a global currency and a global fiscality (such as the famous Tobin Tax on all financial transactions proposed by Nobel Prize Laureate James Tobin). Why not imagine a global "telecommunications tax" or a global "energy tax" to help reducing information access imbalances and fighting global ecological concerns?

Market is based on competition: hence the strongest emerge, with a non-linear effect: the fall of weaker competitors (provoked by the free market) creates monopolies or oligopolies (which are in fact contrary to general interest). Problems of monopolies of software (Microsoft vs. Netscape, Java vs. Active X) are good examples of this non linear effect of free market.

This is why the regulators have still a role to play. They are supposed to incarnate the " general interest ". For instance they are supposed to define the need for " universal access " at the information age.

What should be the new "universal access" paradigm? Should it be only based on physical access? Should it include fair telecommunications tarrif policies, including adequate subsidization of certain classes of users ? Or should it also include free access to certain "contents", for instance access to all public domain data and governmental information relevant to citizens imbued with their duty of being well informed on all affairs of state and eager to enforce democracy? What should be the minimum level of service for users? Is it possible to cost obligations to the public service mission in a meaningful way? What should be the "consumer's rights"? Are these rights interfering with the "citizen's rights", if they are limited by the interest of the "market" ?

Problems of interconnection, interoperability of networks and services are also to be regulated as well as fair allocation of resources (access to numbers, availability of radio-frequency spectrum, pricing the spectrum, frequency auctioning).

Regulators have also to consider that deregulation does not necessarily mean more competition. Private telecom operators overwhelm the regulators and frequently prevent them from applying effective standards of consumer protection or economic efficiency.

Sharing the costs of international calls. The case of Internet.

Accounting rates in the international telecommunications traffic have a major impact on the revenues and on the growth of telecommunications in developing countries. The full liberalisation of telecommunications along with other factors (advent of callback, internet telephony) raises serious concern regarding the old way of sharing the cost of an international call between countries. The conventional Accounting Rate System which has been in place for many years, is a revenue sharing system established on the basis of bilateral negotiations. International telecom carriers negociate between themselves the price for handling one minute of international telephone service. The rate is usually divided 50/50 between the originating and terminating carriers on a direct route between them. For indirect routes, there is also a fixed transit fee.

Since there is usually an imbalance, the operator with the higher volume of minutes pays a net settlement to the operator with fewer minutes. As traffic volumes have increased over the years, strong pressure has been exerted by outpaying administrations to reduce the settlement rate to the level of actual costs for terminating calls. Most Asia and Pacific countries are developing countries and are net receivers. Generally the cost of telecom infrastructure in developing countries is higher because economies of scale do not compare with advanced countries which have the advantage of local manufacturing and high economies of scale. These countries may be tempted to resist the efforts of traffic originating countries to exert a downward pressure on the rates. Practices like callback can put further pressures on the system. The callback operator attracts high value customers from operators with higher collection rates. This often means loss of business to operators in developing countries. The recent United States' FCC Order aims at a huge reductions in Settlement Rates. This has been opposed by many countries, who feel that the sole purpose of the FCC Order is to benefit US carriers at the expense of developing countries. Cost-based charging is not easy to implement, and implies, in particular, re-balancing tariffs between local, domestic long distance and international calls. In effect, an international settlement reduction would ultimately lead to a lowering of developing countries' revenues and telecommunications viability, already threatened by the steady fall in their call collection revenue due to the proliferation of call back services.

Moreover, conventional telecom arrangements will be bypassed with the carriage of voice over Internet or Virtual Private Networks.

It is a global problem, but addressed at mainly from the vantage point of the US and call generating countries. FCC has already taken unilateral actions in July 1997, effective since January 1998.

But the growth of international network will be inefficient if facilities are not evenly distributed in relation to usage patterns.

The principle of termination charge is being explored. Telecom operators might set up a standard and transparent charge for incoming traffic based on cost and other factors (such as interest charges on development loans, and even cross-subsidy elements...). It would be applicable irrespective of the source of the calls and would therefore eliminate the need to workout bilateral settlements.

The case of Internet is very illustrative of strong imbalances. Internet serves as an information bank where non-US based users access web-sites in the US and download information. Traffic is almost all one-way or asymmetrically emanating from the US. Hence, US carriers insisted that non-US based carriers pay for the full circuit link to US instead of the traditional arrangements whereby each carrier would pay for its own half circuit.

The power of American telecommunication operators is such that the United States have become the telecommunications and Internet " hub " of the world. At a moment when voice telephony has just been surpassed by Internet traffic (in 1998) and when it is foreseen that in 2002 the telephone traffic will only be 1% of the Internet traffic, the first thirteen Internet providers in the world are all American. British Telecommunications (BT), the first European is the fourteenth. Worldcom, owner of the first world provider, UUNet, is well placed to dominate the world market after having bought the second world provider, MCI Communications. Let’s not forget at this point the iron law of growing returns in the economy of networking. If UUNet attracts so many users on its federative network, it’s because its geographic span is bigger and because it has many more associative partnerships with other networks, thus guaranteeing a better access and a better reliability in a constantly improved positive feed-back loop.

The invisible hands of the networks change the geography of the world. An Internet link between Paris and Frankfurt or Paris and London is more expensive than the same link between Paris and New York or London and New York. The average cost of the European " information highways " is seventeen to twenty times more expensive than the equivalent in the United States. This explains why Virginia has become the hub of intra-European networks ! European Internet providers are literally obliged to connect themselves in priority to the world hub, thus reinforcing the predominance of the U.S. and again augmenting their strategic superiority. In Asia, more than 93% of the Internet infrastructure is oriented towards the U.S. Intra-regional networks are much less effective, ans since providers are competing, they prefer to link themselves to California, where the intra-Asian commuting is done! This world imbalance has three effects : firstly, the subvention by world Internet providers to American providers is about 5 billion US $ per year, secondly, new high capacity fibre optic links (at 80 Gbits/sec) are being built between Asia and the US multiplying the available bandwidth at an ever lower cost, thus reinforcing the compelling attraction of the US hub, and thirdly, the American providers, and Internet users, obtain free access to the Internet of the rest of the world, since all Internet links, paid for by foreign operators, are inherently two-way links. Thus some of the poorest countries in the world, in Africa or in Latin America, entirely subsidize e-mails, e-commerce or Internet telephony emanating from American users…

Does such a system, which results from the " invisible hands " of the market, really correspond to the greater common good, to fair global justice ?

The continuation of the existing asymmetrical payment arrangement can no longer be justified. It is unfair to non-US based carriers and especially users because US-based users are not paying for their international Internet access. The revenue benefits of Internet services around the globe are in fact directed toward US operators. The more the situation evolves, the more US operators, content and database business owners are getting full advantage of this imbalanced traffic flow. Where in fact are the global regulators able to think of another global telecommunications policy ? The reality speaks for itself : the FCC is able to take unilateral actions with almost no counter initiatives from any other countries.

We have to bear in mind that the practical problems of estimating the relevant costs for a complex telecommunication network system are very difficult.

As one commissioner of the USA's FCC once stated: " Cost allocation will become increasingly difficult and meaningless in the future... Once the local exchange carriers are transporting broadband and video along their present voice services, and wireless is used extensively for local access, the allocation of costs will become a nightmare with little meaning... To take a simple example, consider how the cost of a local loop will be allocated if that loop was used to carry voice, broadband and video simultaneously." In fact, there is no universally "correct" set of tariff setting principles. In other words there is no scientifically assertive way to decide what is a " good " telecommunications tariff policy. Pricing policy is only a means of achieving desired objectives. But who should decide these objectives: the market, or the regulator – supposed to guarantee the "general interest"? And who decides to give the regulator the essentially political ends to pursue and achieve? It is a matter of fundamental policy, which should be democratically discussed, not only at the national level but at the global level, where the most unfair imbalances exist. All too often, however, this type of debate is not openly discussed by national assemblies, and never discussed at the world level, since there is no such a thing as a world parliamentary assembly.

Public and Private. The crucial importance of public domain

The primary concern of privately owned media is to make money. The primary task of public-interest oriented media is to foster political and cultural development, at national and international levels. Open ended goals such as "public interest" or "cultural development" are very difficult to measure. Public interest is a much more difficult issue to grasp than private interest. It is more abstract, and in essence more conflictual to define. It is scattered among all the people, and thus nobody in particular seems directly and personally concerned, and eager to tackle this vague and global type of problem, left often to anonymous bureaucracies or rhetorical politicians. This problem is another aspect of the "tragedy of the commons". When everybody is supposed to take care of the "commons", nobody in particular feels urgently and primarily concerned to do so. Somebody else will care... And vested interests take advantage of this public disinterest for public good to lobby decision-makers for their own specific needs. The more the problems grow global and abstract, the more public good seems to be left unattended and the more private interests become efficient and active at taking their own profit share out of the public cake.

This universal mechanism will not be stopped by the Information revolution. On the contrary, it will be aggravated.

We need a deep understanding of what actually is the "common good" at the Information age? Is it "universal access", for instance? Or something more abstract like equal oportunities for all in the Information society?

A good start is to think concretely about "public domain".

At the height of the "economic bubble" in Japan, there was a tongue-in-cheek proposition to give all land back to the Emperor. This idea was not new. In Europe the concept of "commons" existed a long time ago in feudal times, and even earlier was conceptualized under the political category of "res publica". Now the bubble has been somewhat deflated. But the very concept of "public domain" remains valid. The international sea zone, the outer space or the human genome belong to the "public domain", or the inalienable human heritage.

In our globalized era, it is of vital and strategic importance to recognize, promote and strengthen the global public domain, be it physical (such as radio spectrum) or cultural and informational (such as masterpieces of the past or information produced on public funds).

The hertzian spectrum belongs to the public domain. Thus the public should benefit

from their use. The recent digital spectrum give-away to broadcasters underscores the inefficient and biased misuse of public resources. The citizenry should benefit

and profit from the use of public frequencies, and should retain a portion of the spectrum for educational, cultural, and public access uses. Public interest should demand more money for private use of public property.

Same problem with public domain data. Masterpieces of the glorious past, stored in public libraries and museums do not belong to curators. They belong to the public of a particular nation, and also to human kind. If every nation decided to give back to its own people free access to its own memory, then not only everyone would have access to its own cultural treasures, but also to all other nations' cultural heritage.

The question of intellectual property rights seen from the global good viewpoint

Water, space, human genome, public domain cultural heritage, past inventions, ideas belong to the world public domain, the " res publica " of the world. It is a very sensitive and deeply political subject that is directly linked to the essence of what constitutes and founds the global good. In this context the question of the evolution of intellectual property should not be treated only from the merely juridical or commercial viewpoints, but also from an ethical, philosophical and ultimately fundamentally political slant. It is necessary to understand the lobbies at work and their motivations and to determine from an enlightened vision and for the global good, the ethical assumptions that should guide the evolution of the law.

What is the founding principle of intellectual property laws ? To protect general interest in ensuring universal dissemination of knowledge, creations and inventions, while guaranteeing authors a protection of their rights for a limited period of time, after which their intellectual production " falls " into the public domain. The goal is clearly to benefit humankind in the long-term by giving access to everyone to the fruits of the tree of knowledge and invention. During the French revolution, Le Chapelier established the principle of freedom of copy, to encourage the freedom of commerce and industry and to avoid the bottlenecks, monopolies and inefficiencies of an " exclusive " right to intellectual property. The general idea was to avoid the feudal " privileges " exclusively obtained from royalty until the Revolution. In the United States, at about the same period, Thomas Jefferson, promoter of the first public libraries, wrote : " He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine ; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. " He was clearly in favor of " fair use " in matter of intellectual property, looking for the general interest rather than just the protection of vested interests.

But since the beginning of the century, American Congress regularly augments the length of copyrights without any compensation for the public domain. In 1998, Congress voted a new law that prolongs the length of copyrights from seventy-five to ninety-five years after author’s death. This evolution, obviously desired by the lobbies of information and communication industries, and obtained without real democratic debate, supported by some House representatives more for local political reasons than for general principles, is not compatible with the development of a really universal access to information. One could also cite the lobbying organised by giant biotechnology companies tending to " protect " engineered seeds and preventing farmers to re-use the seeds that they themselves crop – which is in direct conflict with millenaries of peasant practice... This kind of enforcement of intellectual property laws should really be poised in consideration of the needs of developing countries, and not just from the viewpoint of private companies.

The European Directive of 11 March 1996 on databases created a new intellectual property right, the " sui generis " right, enabling one to claim intellectual property rights on all kinds of databases. The goal was to encourage investment in the compilation of commercial databases. However critics and NGOs like the International Council for Science (ICSU)  quickly pointed out that the European directive has many troublesome features :

-The creation of an absolute exclusive property right in raw data

-A very broad definition of databases that potentially covers every information product that has heretofore been freely available from the public domain.

-The introduction of long and potentially perpetual terms of protection based on unlimited renewal rights in a database.

-No mandatory public-interest limitations of any consequence for the preservation of public-good activities, such as research, education and libraries.

The International Council for Science reacted strongly: " The EU directive could irreparably disrupt the full and open flow of scientific data which ICSU has long labored to achieve, and could seriously compromise the worldwide scientific and educational missions of its member bodies. (…) All data – including scientific data – should not be subject to exclusive property rights on public policy grounds." More generally the Directive created an uproar in many intellectual circles on the ground that it could just kill the role of public disseminators of information (libraries, archives, museums…) by allowing the private sector to claim " intellectual property rights " for databases created out of public domain information. A proposal similar to the EU Directive was presented at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in December 1996 in Geneva, but was rejected due to strong political opposition from developing countries and from some developed countries of Asia.

This highlights the difficulty of clarifying what is really in the interest of the global good in matters of intellectual property.

New cognitive tools for a global citizenship

Global regulation is indeed needed in many areas as we have seen. But above all, we need to find a new meaning to our collective action. We need to formulate a higher and wiser vision of what we are aiming at, as citizens of our global society. We need new mental tools to help us think global.

Too much data is just noise. Information is not knowledge and even less wisdom. We need meaning not just information tools. We need wisdom. Proliferation of information will not add one minute to a day. In the information overflow, we are not necessarily doing any better than before. On the contrary, we may simply lose touch with reality, and lose the human touch. Information flood is a serious challenge, requiring discipline, distance and scepticism. We will need cognitive skills of awareness, perception, reasoning, and common sense judgement.

There is an atrophy of the "sensus communis" (the common sense). The "sensus communis" is the sense that can give us a sense of the "common good". This sixth sense is pre-eminently the political sense, the sense of judgement. To judge always implies always a certain distance, withdrawal, retreat, or abstraction from events and facts. To judge also implies an attention to plurality, to diversity. It implies a widened and enlightened way of thinking, obtained by comparing one's own personal judgement to others'. It implies the ability to put oneself in another's place, to understand other slants, other vantage points. It implies a capacity to distance oneself from oneself. It is an aptitude to think as a person in the interest of the community.

In a world driven by the flow of information, the interfaces – and the underlying code - that make information visible are becoming enormously powerful social forces. Understanding their strengths and limitations, and even participating in the creation of better tools, should be an important part of being an involved citizen. These tools affect our lives as much as laws do, and we should subject them to a similar scrutiny.

We need to understand better the underlying assumptions of the cognitive tools (simulation models, computing and conceptual models, cognitive schemes, statistics) we are increasingly using, consciously or not. A new "cognitive" enlightenment is necessary. We are still in the Dark Ages of global governance and we do not even know how far we still are from acquiring minimal cognitive tools to deal with globalization problems.

Wiring the schools will not be enough. We need to know what kind of citizen we want our children to become. We want our children to grow up happy and wise, not just as egg heads, full of unnecessary volatile data. We do not want our children to be instrumentalized at the service of a economico-techno-sphere devoid of any real human vision. In brief, we need a humanistic approach. It should be the ICTs that serve us, and not us serving the technosphere.

Hence the fundamental questions: what kind of global civilization are we in fact building? What other kind of civilization should we try to build? Then what ICTs and tools are needed? What role for international organizations like UNESCO?

The role of UNESCO in the Information Society

For UNESCO, the Information Society represents a unique challenge and a fantastic opportunity. The challenge is that the Organization must find an original and indisputable role in a domain that is now covering the whole of society. The opportunity is that Information Society values and methods will give UNESCO a unique chance to fulfil its fundamental missions: to advance the mutual knowledge and understanding of peoples; to promote the free flow of ideas; to give fresh impulse to popular education; to maintain, increase and diffuse knowledge by initiating methods of international cooperation to give the people of all countries access to the printed and published materials produced by any of them.

UNESCO's strategy in the Information Society may be summarized by two main ideas:

  • UNESCO concentrates on the "content" aspects of the Information Society, including universal access to information, and training and ethical issues.
  • UNESCO concentrates on "Infostructure" (policies, networking and applications) rather than on basic telecommunication and informatics facilities.

The "content" aspects of this strategy include :

- info-ethics issues (universal access to information, privacy, confidentiality, security of information).

- fostering the access to diversified contents by developing a strong "public domain" of information accessible on-line and off-line: the "Global Cyber Commons".

- promotion of cultural and linguistic pluralism in the Information Society, including access to the virtual "Memory of the World" made of all cultural and documentary heritage belonging to the public domain.

- training in the information age and in the context of globalization, with particular attention given to the needs of information professionals and trainers (journalists, librarians, archivists, documentalists, computer specialists), user communities (educators, scientists, members of social and cultural organizations) and governments.

- participation in the global cyber-culture, with special attention to youth needs.

The "infostructure" aspects of the strategy include:

- supporting consistent national information policies (in particular appropriate telecommunications tariff policies, and so-called "universal access" policies, in a context of "technological convergence", deregulation and privatization )

- networking of people and institutions (with a view to sharing experience and knowledge and avoiding duplication of efforts)

- designing innovative, application-oriented, pilot projects: virtual learning communities, virtual laboratories, virtual libraries, on-line governance, multi-purpose community telecentres in rural or disadvantaged areas, information access for illiterate people, user-friendly interfaces for all.

- improving infrastructures: public libraries, archives and documentation centres serving as gateways to the Information Society, information services and networks.

Globalization and Abstraction

The Information Society imposes a model (cognitive, efficient, abstract, market-based). The growing "abstraction" of our way of thinking is in fact, as already noted, a facilitating factor of globalization. Globalization, the Information society and "abstraction" go hand in hand and reinforce each other.

Some anthropologists, like André Leroi-Gourhan, define the "progress of civilizations" by their level of abstraction, for example, the tool which is an "abstraction" for the claw or for the hand, the written word which is an abstract equivalent of the oral word. If we follow this view, we are indeed making a big leap forward in abstraction, when we replace reality by virtuality in most of our activities. We might then be tempted to think that we are a civilization in progress.

But it is our view that abstraction cannot be the main measure of progress of civilization. It is, at most, a progress in the mental instruments of humanity put to serve rather narrow, unspecified, unquestioned, non-humane goals.

The definition of Teilhard de Chardin is more enlightening. He defines "progress" as a capacity for "otherness", i.e. to be able to understand "otherness" and to care for it.

The main risk of a global civilization is that it may end up in limiting diversity and "otherness", by imposing powerful norms of conduct and standards of behaviour.

If that were to happen, we would not be a civilization in progress.

The foreigner, the alien are unforgettable symbols of difference as such. They are images of the "other". But there are many other "others": the unemployed, the poor or the illiterate. They are almost by nature excluded from the Information society. This is why, more than an Information society, we need a "Wisdom society", a "Meaning" society", i.e. a just and kind society, where all the "others" may find their place.

Some alternative values and behaviours are beginning to emerge in cyberspace (such as knowledge sharing, collaborative working methods, a new sense of global citizenship), but this is possible only within a certain infostructure and a level of literacy. They are hints of deeper changes already at work.

In search of a global meaning.

We need hope and meaning. How can we develop not-for-the-profit activities in a society which recognize individuals only through the prism of their market value? How can we give some human meaning to globalization? How can we create a sense of global solidarity?

For global problems, nations-states are too small to be of any decisive influence. The United Nations System is not yet recognized as a Global Governance body. As citizen of the world, we lack an effective common ground, a global public agora, where to discuss and implement global policies. The only truly international operators are the highflying financiers, the global speculation operators, the global information and communication operators. But even these have no real sense of the global common good in mind. They tend to maximize their own private, specific interests. And the only criterium of success is the quantitative return from the market.

A global public life has yet to be created. What has been lost in the modern age, is the very space where a public life could be nurtured and developed.

We urgently urgently such a "common world", as opposed to the "global world". McLuhan spoke of the "Global Village". What we need now is the "Common House" of this village.

The common good exists only if we talk about it, if we discuss it, if we come to agree with others on a common action about it.

The unity of mankind cannot be founded on a unique religion, a unique philosophy or even a unique form of government. It should be founded on the paradoxical and difficult assumption that diversity is in fact more needed for unity than unity itself. Multiplicity hides and reveals unity. But multiplicity, like bio-diversity, is hard to maintain in a globalized age. Hence, the very basis for a profound unity (made possible by the preservation of, and the attention to, diversity) is radically threatened by globalization, which imposes its oversimplified "unification".

The mental revolution which has already started will make us radically different from previous generations. Another humanity, of which we have no idea, will emerge from this, primarily relying on an intense personal sense of our common destiny. In order to survive, we'll have to become our dreams.

  Mr Philippe Quéau is Director of UNESCO's Information and Informatics Division

Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.

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